The early results are in: Hurricane Gustav has helped John McCain’s bid for the White House. This is nothing short of incredible.
In the combination of New Orleans and hurricanes, we have the most powerful argument possible for the necessity of "change." It’s all there: gaping inequality, deep racism, crumbling public infrastructure, global warming, rampant corruption, the Blackwater-ization of the public sector. And none of it is in the past tense. In New Orleans whole neighborhoods have gone to seed, Charity Hospital remains shuttered, public housing has been deliberately destroyed–and the levee system is still far from repaired.
Gustav should have been political rat poison for the Republicans, no matter how well it was managed. Yet, as Peter Baker noted in the New York Times, "rather than run away from the hurricane and its political risks, Mr. McCain ran toward it." If this strategy worked, it was at least partly because Barack Obama has been running away from New Orleans for his entire campaign.
Unlike John Edwards, who started and ended his nomination bid surrounded by the decay of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, Obama has shied away from the powerful symbolism the city offers. He waited almost a year after Hurricane Katrina to visit New Orleans and spent just half a day there ahead of the Louisiana primary. During the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden made no mention of New Orleans in their keynotes. Bill Clinton spared just two words: "Katrina and cronyism."
In his Denver speech, Obama did invoke a government "that sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes." But that only scratches the surface of what happened to New Orleans’s poorest residents, who were first forcibly relocated and then forced to watch from afar as their homes, schools and hospitals were stolen. As Obama spoke in Denver, families in New Orleans were already packing their bags in anticipation of Gustav, steeling themselves for yet another evacuation. They heard not even a perfunctory "our thoughts and prayers are with you" from the Democratic candidate for President.
There are plenty of political reasons for this, of course. Obama’s campaign is pitching itself to the middle class, not the class of discarded people New Orleans represents. The problem is that by remaining virtually silent about the most dramatic domestic outrage in modern US history, Obama created a political vacuum. When Gustav hit, all McCain needed to do to fill it was show up. Sure, it was cynical for McCain to claim the hurricane zone as a campaign backdrop. But it was Obama who left that potent terrain as vacant as a lot in the Lower Ninth Ward.